Testing the Waters: Navy Takes Cautious Steps With Autonomous Ships

October 21, 2016 - via National Defense

An underwater vehicle is being transported during the Unmanned Warrior exercise.

For the U.S. Navy, it’s not a matter of if but when autonomous ships begin to take on duties across the fleet. Naval warfare experts and technologists have drummed up a long list of potential missions for robots at sea, such as hunting enemy submarines and sea mines, medical evacuations, ship repairs and other jobs that have become too taxing, dangerous and expensive for human operators.

Companies in the robotics industry and defense contractors that are making multimillion-dollar bets on unmanned ship designs are impatient for this vision to materialize. The Navy for now appears to be in no hurry to pour big money into drone ships and submarines. And there is little tolerance these days for risky gambles on technologies.

The Pentagon’s new strategy — to test, and keep testing, equipment before it buys — comes after decades of costly “rush to failure” missteps in military procurements. The Navy’s unmanned ship efforts are a stark illustration of the more cautious approach.

“Our prototyping efforts are a hedge against an uncertain future,” said Stephen Welby, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering. “They allow us to avoid early commitment to procurement, and they provide options to leadership to help shape future system portfolios.”

In a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Welby threw light on the Pentagon’s new approach. “Our strategy to accelerate maturation of capabilities in a constrained budget environment is an increased focus on prototyping and experimentation,” he said. Beginning with the fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, the Pentagon is providing only enough funds for a “limited number of representative prototypes for operational users, to be exercised with, in the field and with the fleet.”

The unmanned ship known as Sea Hunter is a “great example” of how the Pentagon wants to go about procuring big-ticket autonomous systems. This surface vessel, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency with a team of Pentagon contractors — is capable of fully autonomous operation. It was originally designed to track stealthy, diesel electric submarines but the Navy decided to spend the next two years experimenting with the ship “to help understand how unmanned capabilities will intermix with manned capabilities and future systems,” said Welby. “When I put sensors on it, how will this interact with other ships? Can I use them in a mine-clearing role?. All these kind of questions that come up,” he asked. “Can I use unmanned ships to free up manned ships, to do the missions that they’re most capable of, can I avoid having to use a destroyer?”

As it sorts out future requirements for unmanned ships and matches them up with available technology, the Navy has to be careful about how it spends its funds, said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Mathias Winter. “What keeps me up at night? Inefficiency,” he told a CSIS forum in July. “Somebody's doing something that's already been done before and it's on the shelf and just didn't know it was on the shelf, so you duplicate that effort.”

The Pentagon assigns budget lines to different stages of the technology development process, starting with basic science, research, experimentation and demonstration, and then prototyping. But these budget lines have become a “blurred area, because we're not really sure if this technology is going to be effective in a particular domain or be a technology that's useful to a war fighter.”

The thinking now shaping the Navy’s plan for autonomous vehicles is that ship prototypes will have to prove their mettle in an integrated network, similar to what would happen in a real-world scenario. Swarms of unmanned aircraft, for example, were deployed over the Gulf of Mexico this summer to test how they worked together. Mathias said these demonstrations, if successful, will motivate the military services to fund programs. “We've already had the conversation with our resource sponsors and the appropriate other stakeholders in the Navy on what's the next step,” he said. This is also the time when he would want to discuss “cost share opportunities” with contractors “to keep moving this forward.”

Only when unmanned aircraft, ships and submarines figure out how to talk to each other, operate seamlessly and navigate in complex environments will they become a game-changing technology, officials contend. “I want to be domain-agnostic in the next demonstration,” Winter said. “I want a UUV, USV and UAV swarming together.” The technology is advanced enough to do this, he said. “A lot of this is not the science, it's the business of the science. Understanding how we bring that together takes day-to-day program management and leadership.”

Manufacturers of underwater drones — some having developed privately funded vehicles in anticipation of future Navy demands — are watching how the service moves forward with a program known as LDUUV, or large diameter unmanned underwater vehicle. The concept is an autonomous mini-submarine launched from a surface ship or attack submarine. A demonstration is planned for next year off the coast of California. Future experiments will include unmanned surface ships and aircraft. 

The U.K. Royal Navy last month hosted one of the largest-ever naval robots war games, called Unmanned Warrior. The U.S. Navy brought 10 underwater vehicles to demonstrate. Dozens of systems privately developed by military contractors also participated. 

Navy mine warfare expert Damion Dunlap said the exercise gave officials a taste of how coalition operations could be waged with a network of systems from different countries. “They were able to task each other,” he told reporters in a conference call. 

Mine warfare is emerging as one of the most promising applications for UUVs. For the U.K. exercise, the Navy deployed two vehicles in mine-hunting roles, one six feet long, and another 18 feet long. The Navy would want a mix of vehicles to tackle undersea mines. “Sometimes you want something to neutralize the mines,” Dunlap said. “Sometimes you want something small and cheap. Or something that can do wide sonar sweeps.”

During the exercise off the coast of Scotland, Dunlap said, unmanned underwater vehicles were connected with surface and air vehicles. Surface vessels served as communications links between underwater and aerial systems, and the aircraft operated as communications nodes to connect the robots to human crews ashore. Approximately 50 aerial, surface and underwater autonomous systems were deployed in surveillance, intelligence gathering and mine warfare roles.

U.K. Royal Navy Cmdr. Peter Pipkin said the event was the first large-scale demonstration of marine robotic systems ever hosted by the United Kingdom. As part of its “defense innovation initiative,” the U.K. government is actively scouting the market for commercial off-the-shelf technology that it can quickly insert into the fleet. “Mine countermeasures is an obvious example, with really exciting opportunities,” he said. The point is not to replace manned ships but to examine “how we might use unmanned capability to do our jobs in a different way.”

The Navy’s top leadership has championed the use of autonomous ships for nearly a decade, and current Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has called for an “HOV lane” for the transition of mature commercial technology to the fleet. 

Such high-level advocacy compelled a number of Navy contractors and ship builders to design vehicles that they could provide as turnkey systems. Some defense companies also moved to acquire commercial robotics specialists to beef up their talent base. 

Boeing has teamed with Liquid Robotics to produce the “sensor hosting autonomous remote craft” solar and ocean powered autonomous wave glider, which the company is marketing to the U.S. and other navies. Company officials said they regarded the U.K. Unmanned Warrior exercise as a significant opportunity to show navies the state of the technology.

Also jumping on the autonomy bandwagon is commercial ship designer Juliet Marine Systems. CEO Gregory Sancoff recently announced the company plans to build a submersible unmanned surface vehicle. “We expect it to transform the way navies fulfill their operational requirements,” he said in a statement, noting that the vessel can be manufactured in 18 to 24 months.

The next hurdle for manufacturers is proving that they can produce autonomous systems at prices that would motivate the Navy to buy them in large numbers. “Driving the price down, that’s our ticket to get the Navy to make a decision to go forward,” said Carlo Zaffanella, vice president and general manager of General Dynamics Mission Systems. The company made a big move into the UUV market by acquiring an established player in the industry, Bluefin Robotics. One of the latest products is an autonomous underwater vehicle that scans large ship hulls to help find structural issues. 

Zaffanella said the company is under contract with the Naval Sea Systems Command to produce up to 15 vehicles. He believes the Navy will buy more “at the right price point.” Navy leaders are “extremely interested” in using underwater robots for mine neutralization, he said, “But you need to bring the price down because they're expendable.”

The Navy is treading carefully in its efforts to deploy mine hunting robots following the cancellation of the troubled “remote minehunting system.” The Navy had intended to buy 54 RMS vehicles as part of the Littoral Combat Ship’s mine countermeasures variant. As costs soared and the vehicle showed poor performance, the service terminated the program after it bought just 10. It will consider other options to fill that mission, one of which is General Dynamics Knifefish unmanned underwater vehicle, also a Bluefin design. Again, the Navy “wants the price down,” said Zaffanella. “I think you'll see Knifefish as a solution. 

The 21-inch Knifefish falls in the mid-size category that fits in torpedo tubes. The large diameter UUV is being designed at the Navy’s undersea warfare laboratory but eventually contractors will be asked to provide bids. A new emerging program is the extra large XLUUV, virtually an unmanned submarine. “It will be quite large, complex, capable of doing many missions,” said Zaffanella. “It’s creating a lot of buzz in the industry. People are thinking about how to build it, and how to control the price.”

In addition to mine warfare, the Navy has an obvious need for autonomous vehicles for antisubmarine warfare. “More submarines are being built by potential adversaries,” he said. U.S. Navy vehicles need more power and endurance for long missions.

Companies are reluctant to disclose their own estimates of what these vehicles might cost. “You'd like to get small UUVs into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, down from hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Zaffanella. The mid-size models should come down from $10 million to $1 million or less. “All that is happening,” he said. “Prices probably will be coming down in half. Volume makes a big difference, but this market has not had the benefit of that.” When the Navy starts to see the maturity of the designs, it should commit to larger production runs.

The manufacturer of the now terminated RMS, Lockheed Martin, has moved to develop commercial autonomous underwater vehicles.

Lockheed Martin's Marlin autonomous underwater vehicle

The company designed the Marlin Mk2 for military and civilian use, Doug Prince, Lockheed’s director of business development for unmanned underwater vehicles, said in a statement. “We also designed the Marlin Mk3 as the deep water version of the Marlin product line,” he said. Lockheed has provided variants of the Marlin Mk2 to the Navy to refine launch and recovery capability from submarines, Prince said. The vehicle is participating in at-sea evaluations of Navy sensors and payloads to demonstrate the potential utility of autonomous vehicles.

At the annual Navy Technology Exercise in Newport, Rhode Island, in August, Lockheed launched a small unmanned aerial vehicle, remotely, from the Marlin MK2 autonomous underwater vehicle. It used an unmanned surface vehicle developed by Ocean Aero for reconnaissance and surveillance. "This effort marks a milestone in showing that an unmanned aircraft, surface vessel and undersea vehicle can communicate and complete a mission cooperatively and completely autonomously," said Kevin Schlosser, chief architect of unmanned systems technology at Lockheed Martin.



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Author:Sandra I. Erwin